Metadata 101: How do I find BISAC codes for a new book? 5 Tips for Success

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HERBERT PUTNAM’S CHALLENGE—This historic Library of Congress photo shows some of the indexing staff updating just a portion of the library’s vast card catalog about a decade after Putnam invented the library’s complex system of codes in 1897.

In our tour of the process of preparing a book for a successful launch, we’ve reached a topic that’s new to all of our first-time authors: BISAC codes. Although this may seem like an arcane topic, authors can substantially boost awareness of their books by understanding how these codes work.

Tip No. 1: This topic is not limited to authors of new books, because BISAC codes continue to evolve. Authors of books published years ago may have never had BISAC codes associated with their books—or may have listed BISAC codes that now have been made obsolete by updates in the indexing system. Obsolete BISAC codes are “busted,” meaning that online bookstores ignore the out-dated codes and wind up guessing at how a book should be “shelved.”

What Is a BISAC Code and Why Do I Need One?

If you are currently working with a publisher to release a book, then your publisher probably has mentioned this step. We always do at Front Edge Publishing.

An author’s next question always is: “What is a BISAC code and why do I need one?”

BISAC is an acronym for Book Industry Standards and Communications, the nonprofit group that maintains the list. BISAC codes are categories and subcategories that retailers and book distributors use to sort books based on their subject or reading level. Think of them as a variation on the Dewey Decimal System, which was invented by librarian Melvil Dewey way back in 1876. The proprietary Dewey system has evolved and its rights have changed hands over the years. In the U.S., the Dewey system is the basis for most public libraries, while the more nuanced Library of Congress (LoC) Classification is used in university collections. Librarian Herbert Putnam developed the LoC system in 1897.

These systems both have been around for a long time!

The problem with these systems—and some other schemes that have been developed over the last century—is that most are proprietary and relatively slow to change. In addition to Dewey and LoC, booksellers today—including online giants Amazon and Barnes & Noble—have developed their own privately held systems for organizing books.

Sometimes these systems just don’t seem fair. For many decades, librarians, authors and activists have questioned and sometimes have protested how these systems sort books. The biggest complaint: They don’t keep up with important emerging subjects. Some critics argue the old systems stack the deck against certain kinds of books or writers.

Finally, leaders in the publishing industry decided that they should pro-actively create their own system of categorizing books. Then, they also would have the power to update the BISAC system more regularly to respond to trends. 

That’s why BISAC codes, created and owned by the nonprofit Book Industry Study Group, keep changing over time. Subject headings are adjusted to highlight emerging issues. So, if you are an author, keep an eye out for updates. The current BISAC list was established in 2017.

What Do BISAC Codes Do?

My original Metadata 101 column touched briefly on this subject and reminded authors to “do your homework and to take your time when choosing a BISAC code.” Well, consider this week’s blog post part of that homework and the CliffsNotes to getting it done right.

Tip No. 2: BISAC codes are free. If you are a new author Googling for information about publishing, you will find companies offering to help with BISAC codes. Some of these offers suggest that you have to pay fees to explore the full range of these codes. That’s simply not true.

The list of categories is available free of charge. You can find it here. Between the categories and subcategories there are over 3000 choices for each book!

If you publish with Front Edge Publishing, we assist our authors in choosing BISAC codes and then we include them in the metadata that is sent to Amazon, Baker & Taylor, Barnes & Noble, Ingram and everyone else in our global distribution chain.

How Many BISAC Codes Should I Choose?

Always choose at least one. The recommended best practice today is to select three. Front Edge Publishing releases books with three BISAC codes, just in case.

Tip No. 3: Not all BISAC codes are equal! Publishing giant Ingram released the most authoritative book on metadata in 2018, called Metadata Basics. We’ve been recommending that book throughout this series of columns. The most important BISAC rule in Ingram’s new book is: “The first code should be the most important and most specific to the book.” Online retailers all weigh the provided BISAC codes differently, but the first code listed is always the most important.

How Do I Choose a BISAC Code for My Book?

The first step in choosing the primary category for your book is to stand in your customer’s shoes. What category are your readers most likely to browse? Choose the obvious category—don’t make this too hard. 

Tip No. 4: Look for books similar to your own. Where do you want readers to find your book? Examine those bookstore pages across a couple of different retailers. Remember: The Amazon and Barnes & Noble product listings do not provide specific BISAC categories. They use BISAC to generate their own proprietary listings. You’re looking for the kinds of categories and terms used—then you can search the BISAC list for similar headings.

Once you’ve determined the main category, the next step is to look at potential subheadings in BISAC.

Tip No. 5: Spread your BISAC bets! Your first subject/subcategory code should be considered the “main subject” and then each subsequent heading should be listed in order of importance. When possible, it is best to list your book in more than one appropriate category; think of this as hedging your bets as to where the buyers will be looking.

The more demographics you touch, the more opportunities for a search engine to point potential buyers in the right direction.

If you are unable to find a BISAC subject heading that fits your book, you can contact the Subject Codes Committee at [email protected]. They will consider your request at their annual meeting if they feel it is warranted.

Want to Review Your BISAC Codes?

If you are the author of a book or books that were published before the 2017 BISAC update, then it’s time to take a second look at your BISAC codes. There might be a new category or subcategory that fits your book better than what was originally chosen, or worse yet, the category that was initially chosen for your book might no longer exist at all.

A great way to refresh your book and possibly prompt a fresh boost in sales is to update your BISAC codes and all of your metadata information. At Front Edge Publishing we encourage and are happy to assist our authors with this review process.

Care to Read More?

Here are the parts in this Metadata 101 series:

About Susan Stitt

Susan Stitt is marketing director of Front Edge Publishing. Over the years, she has guided many authors through the challenging process of launching books and developing strategies that will grow readership. She also has worked widely with nonprofits. Now, she shares her expertise twice each month on our Front Edge Publishing website.